A HISTORY OF OUR CHURCH
by Donald A. Doliber, Church Historian
By 1801, there were twenty-six members, and they raised $100 to build a “pewed” Methodist chapel in Marblehead. The rough wooden building was located on the rocks near the corner of Rockaway and Pleasant Streets, and had “boards on blocks for seats” at first. Pews were added in 1819, and the interior was plastered and finished (total cost = $250). The chapel’s entrance was in the area later known as the “Old Methodist Rocks”, reached by twenty-five wooden steps. That configuration of the land remained into the 1960’s at which time the rocky ledge was removed. Another key development in 1819 was establishment of a Sabbath School, at first jointly with other Protestant churches, and as an independent Methodist Sabbath School in 1825.
Despite challenges about finances in the early 19th Century, the growth of new members and an expanding Sunday school program prompted the congregation to consider building a larger structure. Thus, a new Methodist Episcopal Church came into being on Summer Street (earlier known as Frog Lane), about one block from the old Methodist chapel. Dedicated on September 11, 1833, this wooden structure, costing $5,000, was home to the church for one hundred twenty-five years. That building continues to exist, currently in use as residential property.
Throughout those one hundred twenty-five years, our members supported the Word of God by involvement in meaningful practices, groups and charities. For example, in 1863, a temperance, anti-tobacco, and anti-profanity pledge was introduced by the pastor and was signed by most members of the church. Our church emphasized Christian works in the world at large as reflected in support of Religious Tract societies (1830’s), the Preacher’s Aid Society (1865), the Little Wanderers Home in Boston (1866), the Soldiers and Sailors Union (1866), and the Freedmen’s Aid Society (1866). A prominent visitor in 1912 was African-American leader Booker T. Washington, who accepted an invitation to speak at the church and described his vision for African-Americans to help shape the destiny of the nation, as reported in a local newspaper. Enlightened attitudes to accept women on the official governing bodies of the church came in the 1930’s, although records show women were always instrumental behind the scenes and in fundraising. On into the 20th Century, the church supported Christian causes worldwide and welcomed persons from Africa, Asia, South America and Europe.
It was in 1917 that church trustees adopted the name St. Stephen’s Methodist Episcopal Church, after being the Methodist Episcopal Church at Marblehead between1833 and 1917. The church held a special service to mark this change. Later, in 1939, our name became “St. Stephen’s Methodist Church” upon national merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church – South, and the Methodist Protestant Church. In the mid-1950’s, more change occurred when the church decided to purchase land in the Tent’s Corner section of Marblehead and construct a new building. The Building Committee selected Dr. Arlan A. Dirlam, a prominent church architect and Marblehead resident, for the project.
After one hundred twenty-five years in St. Stephen’s wooden structure with fifty-five pastors having preached from its pulpit, the doors on Summer Street closed on December 14, 1958. Our first service at the new soaring brick church was held on December 21, 1958. Within the church, the huge cross in the sanctuary represented the faith of the old and the new. The wood forming the cross included new wood in the outer section, while old wood in the center came from the communion rail of St. Stephen’s on Summer Street. In 1968, the church once again changed its name upon merger of The Evangelical Union Brethren Church and the Methodist Church. It has since been known as Saint Stephen’s United Methodist Church.
More recent times saw passion for social justice issues on the part of pastors and members around themes such as peace, equality, welcome to people of all sexual orientations, and feeding the hungry. St. Stephen’s is a signatory of the Marblehead Interfaith Covenant reaffirming commitment to peace and justice for all faith communities here, adopted in the 1980’s. In the arts, the church has promoted and hosted concerts by choral groups from Cornwall, England and Tyndale School, Zimbabwe – places quite different, yet so similar in their joy of making thrilling music to the glory of God. St. Stephen’s musicians have a long-running series of annual Christmas Festival concerts as well. St. Stephen’s trusts in God that we'll continue to make history and extend the mission of our church far into the future.
The history of Methodism in Marblehead, Massachusetts, has been marked by struggle and by sacrifice. Its growth has been affected by the personalities of its pastors and its faithful members. An ever-present spirit over the years, however, is reflected in lines of a glorious hymn, Through It All: “Through it all, through it all, I've learned to trust in Jesus, I've learned to trust in God. Through it all, through it all, I've learned to depend upon His Word.”
Renowned 18th Century Methodist circuit rider preachers Jesse Lee and Francis Asbury were instrumental in the introduction of Methodism to Marblehead in the late 18th Century. A July 31, 1791 service by Jesse Lee is marked as the formation of our church. A prominent citizen who went on the become Town Clerk, Joshua Prentiss, opened the “upper room” of his home at 37 Mugford St. as the first worship space, and seven ladies became our first full members.